Italians obsess over pasta (and for good reason). The subtlety of detail that goes into making excellent pasta–from the types of flour used to the liquid employed to make the dough to the well honed skills of kneading and rolling and cutting–can be a life’s work. In the U.S., however, it is said that all we really care about is sauce. We like big, loud, Rube Goldbergian sauces with too many ingredients, over long cooking times and made to the exacting specifications of someone’s long dead Nonna.
Well, I’m here to say, Fuck Nonna (or at least the idea you have of this apparition). Nonna, had she even existed, was frugal and forgetful. She cooked with the ingredients she had available and, not by a strict recipe, but by experience and her own senses. Nonna improvised and did so particularly on sauces, because that’s how she learned to cook. If you want to cook like Nonna, you need to learn how not to use a recipe, or more precisely, how to invent your own recipe on the fly. (Note: I’ve previously discussed improvisational cooking in considerable depth as it relates to Thai food; the same general principles apply here.)
Your Three Basic Components
By my account, pasta sauce, at its most basic level, breaks down to three components: Richness, umami and aromatics. You might be tempted to mention that one time while visiting a tiny winery in the hills of Piemonte, that you “discovered” a simple, fine taglierini pasta, tossed in nothing but sweet butter and a bit of sea salt and black pepper. And it was the best damned pasta dish you’d ever had the pleasure of experiencing. That’s fine but, as it turns out, that dish’s sauce conforms to my three components paradigm. The butter itself is obviously rich with fat but is also, in the case of very high quality butter, a concentrated source of umami. Both the high quality butter and the black pepper are deeply aromatic too, and so the three components have been satisfied.
Unfortunately for most of us, we don’t have access to the finest aromatic butters of rural Piemonte, and so we have to actually combine our butter (or olive oil or rendered fat) with other ingredients. Thankfully, I’ve created a chart with some of my favorites.
I’ve included items to this chart so that you could, theoretically, combine at least one from every column above in a well thought out, improvised recipe and arrive at a quite tasty pasta sauce. For example, butter, cured meat (such as prosciutto) and garlic can be combined to excellent affect. Likewise, butter, olive oil, anchovies, sausage, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red bell pepper, chili pepper, fresh herbs and garlic can also be combined brilliantly. With the right hand, you could even combine all of the ingredients above in a single dish (think a sexed up soffrito or a minestra), although it’s worth noting that less is often more in Italian cuisine. I recommend employing a judicious, thoughtful process of ingredient selection rather than anything so haphazard, to be sure.
In traditional, lightly portioned pasta dishes, you really don’t need all that much variation in texture and flavor to keep the dish interesting. By the time your palate becomes accustomed to the flavors, the dish has been fully consumed. Even so, if you have some variation, all the better. In modern American cuisine, however, pasta dishes can often be of a shareable or entree size. In these cases, variations in texture and flavor can mean the difference between a good dish and a great one. To my mind, there are four components to consider here: Acid and sweetness to enhance, brighten and vary the existing flavors in the dish, along with adding what I call mouthful ingredients as well as various toppings for textural variation. Of course, I have a chart on offer for clarity:
Mouthful ingredients are ones that break from the norm of sauce and al dente pasta. Among the mouthful ingredients are a variation of textures including greens, which are wilted and soft by the time they make it to the plate, as well as firmer items such as eggplant which can be dry roasted to a still firm but delicious texture. Toppings range from crunchy breadcrumbs and nuts to crisp fresh herbs (which also provide a distinctive and complimentary blast of flavor).
Just like the previous list of the three basic components of sauce, any one or up to all of the four columns above can be combined, theoretically, in any pasta dish. That said, I encourage restraint. So, to our previous example of a sauce composed of butter, prosciutto and garlic, we can add a splash of lemon juice for acid, some caramelized onion for sweetness, delicious pan seared pork tenderloin for mouthfulness and top it off with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and cracked black pepper for a bit of texture and added flavor. In adding all of this, we move from a simple traditional dish to a more elevated entree.
Learning to Improvise
Armed with the above, my suggestion is to now revisit the four pasta dishes I’ve already published, taking the ingredients that I suggest (and they are all merely suggestions, to be sure) and substituting, adding and omitting the ingredients that I have listed above. With the above lists and a some thoughtful preparation, you basically can’t fail.
Have a question? Ask me anything!
Have a question? Ask me anything!